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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / The Chattooga County Courthouse is seen on Monday, July 27, 2020 in Summerville, Ga.

A scheduled debate between the two candidates for the new sole commissioner in Chattooga County was canceled after the Republican candidate opted out.

Blake Elsberry — who beat incumbent Jason Winters in the August runoff election — decided not to participate in the debate, saying the event's organizers didn't properly inform him about how the debate would be run, because the forum didn't find a "vetted, unbiased moderator" and said there was a conflict of interest with the local radio station airing the debate.

Elsberry's opponent in the November election is Democrat Jimmy Holbrook. Holbrook owns local radio station WZQZ AM 1180 radio in Trenton.

The Georgia Farm Bureau and the local chapter in Chattooga County regularly host candidate debates and forums during election season. This year the chapter agreed to host a debate on Facebook Live and asked Holbrook if his radio station would like to simulcast the audio over the airwaves. It's something WZQZ has routinely done in the past, Holbrook said, so he agreed.

While Elsberry said Holbrook has properly stepped away from on-air responsibilities, he said the radio station choosing to be a part of the debate was a conflict of interest.

"It would be like if I owned a TV station and I aired a debate on my station," Elsberry said. "It doesn't look good."

Elsberry also said during the early stages of the event, it was pitched to him as an informal sit-down with a question-and-answer segment between not only he and Holbrook but the candidates for the local probate judge seat.

A couple of weeks went by and the parameters of the event changed, to his understanding, Elsberry said.

(READ MORE: How the Chattooga County Jail dealt with a COVID-19 outbreak)

"I was in contact with the hosts a couple of times and they were very nice about everything," Elsberry said. "But things changed from a sit-down to a debate without the probate judge candidates."

Elsberry also said the delay in finding an unbiased moderator for the debate was a reason to drop out. Holbrook said booking a moderator was taking some time but he didn't feel that was a reason to drop out.

Elsberry was also thrown off by the change to allow a limited number of 75 people at the debate. He said he has no problem with having people watch and have it be limited due to COVID-19 restrictions, but local media were told they would be invited if they were part of the first 75 to sign up.

"I'm running — and Jimmy is running on this too — on more transparency for the public," Elsberry said.

Elsberry said because the 75-person limit felt rushed to him, it didn't give local media the assurance that it would be allowed to cover the debate.

Holbrook told the Times Free Press on Friday that he was disappointed in Elsberry's decision because the Farm Bureau debate has been a staple in local politics for at least 20 years. He also said the radio station's decision to simulcast a Facebook Live feed shouldn't be that controversial.

"Most of my opponent's reasons for dropping out, in my opinion, were off base," Holbrook said. "I really do regret we don't have the opportunity to use one of the ways to have people get to know us as candidates. There are no incumbents in this race."

Holbrook also said Elsberry "should have his ducks in a row" when asked about Elsberry's worries about where questions would come from and who was moderating the debate.

"I've been campaigning since March, all my stuff is out there," Elsberry said.

The two candidates will have a chance to debate. On Oct. 2, Sky 21 TV will host a televised debate between Elsberry and Holbrook, both of whom said they are looking forward to the event.

Contact Patrick Filbin at pfilbin@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickFilbin.

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